McCain’s Irony Effect

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Neal Gabler has a must-read op-ed in the New York Times today, and not least because he identifies me as “a blogger,” which I think should give me some long-denied cred next time I head to Yearly Kos. It is about McCain’s use of irony and self-deprecation to win over the political press.

Seeming to view himself and the whole political process with a mix of amusement and bemusement, Mr. McCain is an ironist wooing a group of individuals who regard ironic detachment more highly than sincerity or seriousness. He may be the first real postmodernist candidate for the presidency — the first to turn his press relations into the basis of his candidacy.

This is actually a story I had once wanted to write myself, but it got lost in the tumult of the early primary. Irony, as used by both McCain and Mike Huckabee, is a powerful force, especially in a country where very few actually believe what any politician (or reporter) is telling them. By being ironic, the candidate says, “Hey, wink wink, I know this is all a hoax, you can trust me.” Gabler’s piece is pretty close to spot on when it comes to the press. The only thing I would add is that the same effect works on voters as well, at least at the town halls I attended in New Hampshire and Iowa. Voters are sick of being lied to by politicians, so it can be refreshing when a politician admits that he is nothing more than a politician. This always seemed to me an untold part of Mitt Romney’s inability to connect with voters. He was always in character, and had a tough time making fun of himself.

Of course, this new PoMo political world brings new problems. When he jokes and winks and self-deprecates, McCain may be showing something about himself, but he is also playing a character, which has been honed for years in the halls of Congress and on the campaign trail. Gabler’s warning is necessary: Just because a candidate pokes fun at himself does not necessarily mean he is any less of a fraud. (Nor does it mean he is more of a fraud.) It just means that we reporters still have our work cut out for us.